Fred Hampton (1948-1969) was a leader and founding member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and a community leader. What he is best remembered for is being assassinated in a raid orchestrated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and carried out by the Chicago police department.
Hampton's parents had lived in Louisiana before moving north to Illinois. He was born in Chicago and grew up in a nearby suburb. He was a good student and succeeded in athletics (three varsity letters and a Junior Achievement award). In 1966, he graduated with honors. He then enrolled in a junior college with a major of pre-law. Hampton had all the prospects of making something of himself and escaping the confines of the inner city (still called the "ghetto" in those days).
It was the 1960s and Hampton, as many other youths and young adults, began looking for ways to take part in "the solution;" ways to better the lives of others. He became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), taking on the leadership of the Youth Council in the local branch. He excelled in his leadership and organizational skills, getting some 500 members recruited from a community of around 27,000far in excess of what anyone would have expected.
He was serious in his "mission" which he saw as "[creating] a better environment for the development of young African Americans" (www.africanpubs.com). He accomplished a number of things and started projects like better neighborhood recreation areas. He also strived to improve educational resources for young blacks in the community. He hoped that he would be able to implement social change and betterment through (peaceful) activism and organizing within the community, itself.
The recently established (1966) Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was becoming well known around the country. Hampton was drawn to it, finding the "Black Panther Party 10 Point Program and Platform" to be a manifesto for self-determination and social change. He joined the BPP and moved to Chicago, starting the Illinois chapter in November 1968.
He continued his activism and organizational success in his new position. He helped start community programs to provide free breakfasts for schoolchildren, was part of an effort to get a free medical clinic opened, and similar things, all aimed at helping out poor blacks.
Probably his greatest coup was organizing a nonaggression pact between some of the major street gangs in Chicago. Realizing that strife and conflict among themselves was counterproductive and kept everyone politically and socially powerless and poor, he got them to see that a "rainbow coalition" (a term coined by Hampton, later used by the Reverend Jesse Jackson) of poor whites, Latinos (mostly Puerto Ricans), and blacks would give them power and opportunity in their lives. In May 1969, he held a press conference to announce the "truce."
A product of the times and environment, Hampton gradually held stronger and more "militant" political views. His most serious act was a "strong-arm theft of $71 worth of Good Humor bars, which he allegedly gave away to neighborhood children" (www.africanpubs.com). He was convicted for the crime and given a sentence of two to five years in prison. The case was overturned and he served no hard time. The affair further galvanized his ideas and beliefs about the institutional racism, inefficiency, and unfairness of the American legal system.
Like many black activists, especially the BPP, he felt he was being forced into a situation where he could not trust the government and change would not come from peaceful community organizing and social programs. He began carrying a gun. For him, it was only for self-defense. While he had softened on his nonviolent ideals, he and many other blacks at the time felt that they were marked by the police and were actually physically at risk for harassment, if not brutality.
He went so far as to say in an interview for the Chicago Sun-Times (1969) that he was not "afraid to say I'm at war with the pigs," submitting recent history as a reason why he felt that way: "What this country has done to nonviolent leaders like Martin Luther King I think that objectively says there's going to be an armed struggle" (www.africanpubs.com).
That said, those who knew him, knew an activist, a passionate, soft-spoken, very articulate man. A member of the village board who had known him from early on said in a 1994 magazine article that, while the BPP in Oakland, California gave him the impression of being "thugs. Fred Hampton was not a thug." Others remembered him as "one of the most articulate and persuasive African American leaders of his time," that he had "charm coming out of his ears" (www.africanpubs.com). He was not a "dangerous" man.
While it is true that some people within the BPP did advocate violent means to enact change and even committed crimes, the whole organization cannot be painted with so broad a brush (though it served its purposes by those in power, to which we return). Of course, these conditions were helped by increasing harassment along with the institutional problems in the justice system, racism, and poverty. The more outraged and action-oriented they became, the more they were targeted, creating a sort escalation on both sides, catching less militant elements in the party in the middle.
Things became truly violent in 1969, with a number of "skirmishes" between youths and Chicago police, leading to the deaths of eleven young blacks. About a dozen members of the BPP were killed or wounded and about the same number of officers. The public relations strategy was to use the incidents to create the belief that they were all thugs. At the urging of the FBI, the official line was that the BPP was "nothing more than a criminal gang," full of violent black militants, deserving the mass arrests and harassment by Chicago's finest. Over 100 Panthers were arrested that year and the headquarters was raided four times. We'll come to that fourth raid later.
Hoover and COINTELPRO, part 1: King
This was also the reign of J. Edgar Hoover as the number one man at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Abuses of civil rights of any group that he personally felt dangerous to the peace and security of the nation have been detailed in several books (though they are usually glossed over in history). A notable campaign was the FBI harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. Which started as a COMINFIL ("Communist Infiltration") investigation that tried to link King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the Communist Party. It later came under the watch of the more aggressive COINTEL ("counter intelligence") program.
Despite being informed early on that the connection was barely tenable, he pressured his agents to find the link and had them step up harassment of King and his organizationfar beyond the wire taps that most people know about. He actually felt King was more dangerous than Malcolm X. It became what appears to be a "personal" matter due to remarks made by King about the systematic operation against him (which included a letter suggesting "There is but one way out for you," meaning committing suicide, lest certain revelations come out about him), which may have explained the virulence directed at he civil rights leader long after he'd been cleared.
This side trip was to demonstrate that the FBI's actions were institutional, widespread, and common. Hampton was not an exception to federal machinations directed at him. Along with the CPUSA, socialist organizations, and the usual official enemies, the Black Power movements (mostly with the goal of "empowerment") were seen as particularly dangerousespecially the charismatic leaders who could rally people around the cause.
This brings one back to King. Whether it was his essentially nonexistent ties to the CPUSA or his part in the civil rights/peace movements, his ability to organize and inspire people made him a threat. Particularly since he crossed racial boundaries. A man such as Hampton was also such a threat.
Hoover and COINTELPRO, part 2: Hampton
In late 1968-early 1969, the FBI had already been trying to create dissension among the various gangs in Chicago in order to destroy any popular movements. One gang, the Blackstone Rangers, was hesitant about joining in Hampton's truce, so the Bureau decided to play upon that (there was a certain amount of rivalry involved with Hampton wanting the Rangers to join him and the Rangers wanting him to join them). It was decided in the Chicago office that an anonymous letter be given to Jeff Fort, leader of the gang, telling him that members of the BPP were making comments about him and his "lack of commitment to black people generally" (www.derechos.net).
The office was pleased with the result, stating that Fort reportedly said he'd "take care" of the individuals. The Bureau then recommended telling him that certain members were responsible (naming names), hoping it would keep the Rangers out of the BPP and "additionally might result in Fort having active steps taken to exact some form of retribution toward the leadership of the BPP" (www.derechos.net). Plausible deniability stripped away, the meaning is pretty clear what would constitute as icing on the cake. Not long after, serious conflict arose between the two groups (something that also played into the official view of the violence, aggressiveness, and criminality of the BPP). Several were arrested after a Ranger shot a Panther.
That night, there was a meeting between the leadership of the Chicago BPP and all of the Rangers (said to be 100information was provided from an FBI informant). The Rangers were heavily armed and near the end of the meeting reportedly allowed Hampton to examine some .45 caliber submachine guns. The Rangers expressed solidarity with the Panthers but refused to join (though Hampton felt that both together could "absorb all the other Chicago gangs"). Hampton stated that "they couldn't let the man keep the two groups apart" (www.derechos.net) and they agreed to meet again for discussion about working together.
The subsequent meeting was a failure, being broken up after heated argument among members of the groups. The following day each offered the other to join his group by the next day. Prospects of this were poor to nonexistent. The FBI was pleased by the "enmity and distrust [that had] arisen," meaning the two groups would not be joining forces any time soon, if at all.
A new letter was proposed, in which "A black brother you don't know" warned Fort that "The brothers that run the Panthers blame you for blocking their thing and there's supposed to be a hit out for you." It was hoped that it would "intensify the degree of animosity between the two groups," leading to possible "retaliatory action" or "reprisals" against the BPP leadership. Interestingly, a similar letter to be sent to the BPP was considered and rejected because the "BPP at present is not believed as violence prone as the Rangers to whom violent type activityshooting and the likeis second nature" (www.derechos.net).
The animosity was increasing on its own between the two leaders with a radio show on which Hampton said he was "educating" the Rangers and Fort calling in saying he was doing the same for the Panthers. A few days later, Hampton stated in a public meeting that the leader of the Rangers had threatened to "blow his head off if he came within Ranger territory" (www.derechos.net). By the end of January 1969, Hoover had authorized sending the letter. It may not have made any difference (the hearings on the FBI's behavior under Hoover found no evidence that it directly instigated additional conflict), but again demonstrates the lengths to which the Bureau was willing to go and the lack of any concern over justice, law, and civil liberties.
Fred Hampton was a dangerous, wanted man. His FBI file, started in 1967, was over 4000 pages (a final one concerning him and the BPP was over 100,000). A certain William O'Neal (convicted car thief) was recruited from county jail as an informant and rewarded by having felony charges against him dropped. He spent a lot of time around headquarters and Hampton, eventually becoming his bodyguard and head of BPP security. He was instrumental in helping the FBI and Chicago police department get information on the BPP. Included in that information was Hampton's daily itinerary.
In mid November of 1969, he met with Roy Mitchell of the local COINTELPRO at a restaurant. At that meeting, he gave a hand-drawn detailed floor plan of Panther headquarters where Hampton and the other leadership often stayed. He also provided names and where they slept. The map was turned over to the state's attorney's office. Included with that were claims of illegal firearms (it's not entirely clear whether this was only an official pretext or if it was also used to mislead the police: see "FBI" below). Mitchell then met with police officials to plan the "raid."
It was 3 December 1969. Hampton and others had come home from a political education class. O'Neal made dinner, during which he apparently slipped a large dose of secobarbital in Hampton's Kool-Aid. He left around 1:30 AM with Hampton and others asleep (Hampton probably unable to easily wake up). A fourteen member team from the Chicago police departmentone armed with a submachine guncrashed into the apartment sometime between 4 and 4:30 AM.
Mark Clark, another member of the Panthers (Peoria, Illinois chapter), had been sleeping on the couch with a shotgun when the raid began, firing it reflexively from the violent intrusion. It was found to be the only shot fired by the Panthers. He was killed. Hampton was killed in his bed, being shot three timesonce in the chest area and twice in the head at point blank range. In addition, three others were wounded. Four were luckily uninjured (one was Hampton's fiancee who was eight months pregnant at the time). The police fired between one and two hundred rounds into the apartment, the firing concentrating on the areas outlined by the floor plan.
Those who survived, were allegedly beaten while handcuffed and charged with "aggressive assault" and "attempted murder" of the police. Bail was set at $100,000.
The FBI, police, and the state's attorney quickly began damage control and a disinformation campaign. The official story was that upon knocking at the door, the Panthers opened fire at them, leading to a ten minute gun battle. Fabricated evidence and television reenactments were used to support that version. The BPP opened up the apartment for investigation. Forensics later bore out the events despite the concentrated lying of the members of law enforcement responsible for the killing.
The State's attorney, one of the police officials, and about a dozen police personnel were indicted for conspiring to obstruct justice (note that the charge has nothing to do with the assassination, only the cover up). The charges were dropped in 1972 as part of an agreement that dropped charges against the survivors. The families of the slain then filed a $47.7 million suit against those who had been cleared, the FBI, and police investigators who had cleared the men of any criminal actions. Men about which the state's attorney said "we wholeheartedly commend the police officers' bravery, their remarkable restraint and discipline in the face of this vicious Black Panther attack, and we expect every decent citizen of our community to do likewise" (www.providence.edu).
The civil lawsuit trial was one of the longest in US history. When it was over there was an undisclosed settlement for the families. Not one officer or higher up spent a day in jail.
O'Neal received around $10,000 for his services to the FBI over the years, including a special cash bonus for his important work in setting up the raid.
In his 1995 book, FBI Secrets: An Agent's Expose, former agent M. Wesley Swearingen describes an occasion when another agent discussed details of the Hampton case. He said that the "FBI had arranged for the raid by telling the police that the Panthers had numerous guns and explosives, and that they would shoot any officer who entered the building." This version of the story makes it seem like the police are less culpable, having been deluded with Bureau disinformation (lies). Possibly true, but unconfirmed at this writing.
The most chilling aspect came when the agent (who is named by Swearingen and who was apparently a friend) stated that:
We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black nigger fuckers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
After the seminar they had been attending was over he never spoke to his friend again.
(quotes from www.colorado.edu)
Hampton's funeral was attended by around 5,000 people. Jesse Jackson and King's successor Ralph Abernathy were among those who gave eulogies. In his, Jackson said that "when Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere" (www.africanpubs.com).
In 1990, the Chicago City Council declared a "Fred Hampton Day."
Supposedly, Hampton was fond of saying that "you can kill a revolutionary, but you cannot kill a revolution. You can jail a fighter, but you cannot jail liberation." The elements of power certainly did their damnedest to prove him wrong. Eventually the BPP really had little power left (as did the Black Power movement), much of it due to harassment, imprisonment, and "other" means, such as the Hampton-Clark murders.
As Dr. Quentin Young, member of Mayor Harold Washington's inner circle once said, "This is a terrible way to put it, but the people who made it their business to kill the leaders of the black movement picked the right ones."
(information on his son really deserves its own node)
(Sources: www.africanpubs.com/Apps/bios/0213HamptonFred.asp?pic=none, www.derechos.net/paulwolf/cointelpropapers/coinwcar3.htm and www.derechos.net/paulwolf/cointelpro/churchfinalreportIIIc.htm, www.ummah.net/albayan/cointelmain.html, www.providence.edu/afro/students/panther/hamptonsr.html, www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/fbikill.htm, the picture of the floor plan can be seen at www.ummah.net/albayan/Images/coindoc24.gif)